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Q&A with Liz Benacka

Assistant Professor of Communication Liz Benacka, author of the 2017 book Citizen Colbert: Humor’s Function in the Public Sphere, analyzes Stephen Colbert’s public appearances in character during the last decade. 

Benacka, who earned both her MA and PhD from Northwestern University’s Department of Communication Studies, examines Colbert’s use of humor and rhetoric through his character on The Colbert Report.

SPECTRUM: What prompted you to write a book about Stephen Colbert?

BENACKA: The book developed out of my work with the Richter Scholars a few summers ago. I had extensive research from examining humor from a rhetorical perspective. My argument was that humor is persuasive and presents things in a very particular way and encourages one to interpret things in a specific manner.

I personally love Stephen Colbert and wanted to develop a scholarly article on Colbert’s use of humor in the public sphere beyond his studio audience. By this time, Colbert addressed Congress and ran a Super PAC, all while in character. Working with the Richter Scholars, I realized I was fascinated with Colbert’s media coverage. Corporate media was presenting what he was doing, as news. So they were not doing the news themselves, Colbert was the news. It was easier, or more entertaining, to hear the news from him. It was a way to get the news and be entertained at the same time.

It was my personal fascination, and this background research I had, that pulled it together. I presented that paper at the National Communication Association Conference in Chicago when a publisher contacted me expressing interest in having a book on Colbert. I was very pleased and amazed.

SPECTRUM: What can we expect from the book?

BENACKA: The book focuses on Colbert’s personality exhibited on The Colbert Report. I write about four of his appearances in public, in character, outside the TV studio and how his humor functions rhetorically. I use his appearance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, his testimony in front of Congress on agricultural workers in September 2010, his appearance at Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Fear and/or Sanity,” in October 2010 at the Mall on Washington, and finally, his “SuperPac, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.”

He has these wonderful “case studies” that each serve as chapters in the book.

SPECTRUM: Why do you think Stephen Colbert’s character was sustainable?

BENACKA: The Colbert Report and his character were so relevant for such a long period of time because he kept changing his focus to something of importance to the public. The lack of media coverage in a post 9/11 environment was really his target at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He took on the topic of immigration and labor in front of Congress. I think one of the strengths of satire and parody is that it has to be contemporary to be relevant.

SPECTRUM: Do you think Colbert made such an impact because people didn’t know at the time he was in character?

BENACKA: I don’t know that everyone ever figured him out. I think that’s part of the media environment, which is another factor I examined. People consume media that tells them what they already know. If you are only consuming Fox News, you might not get anything about Colbert.

SPECTRUM: Is there a difference in perception of humor between liberals and conservatives?

BENACKA: There is a new study coming out that shows conservatives and liberals prefer different types of humor. 

It shows liberals have a higher tolerance, in general, for ambiguity—not just in humor, but in cognitive processing. They can handle more ambiguity and it has been found that conservatives like humor much more direct and straightforward. This is not making any intellectual claims, it’s more of a showing of aesthetic taste.

In response to the study, a conservative humorist said, “Of course, it’s not about intelligence, because liberals are the most stupid people on the planet.” And there’s an example of “direct humor.”

SPECTRUM: What are your expectations for the book?

BENACKA: Zero! I don’t know if I would have written the book if I had any expectations. I would say this was something that, when the opportunity presented itself to me, I felt really fortunate it came to my door. Following up on it, that I completed it, is pretty much the expectation. Right there, I think I met an expectation.

— Nina Vallone